Just as all political debates inevitably end with someone making a Hitler comparison, all debates with libertarians sooner or later involve the claim that taxation is theft. It doesn’t matter whether you are discussing the welfare state, universal healthcare or a TV licence, at some point a libertarian will accuse the government of acting like the mafia and stealing people’s money (just the last day a commenter asked me to “stop promoting the use of force against me or my family“, by which he meant don’t regulate bitcoin). Of course we all know this argument is melodramatic hyperbole, but it would be useful to spell out why.
Let me use an analogy that I think will best get the point across. Think of taxes as like paying rent. The state owns the land and if you want to live on the land you must pay rent. The state is like a shopping centre (or shopping mall for my American readers). If you want to enter it you must agree to abide by its rules. If you refuse, you will be punished by the security guards. If you don’t like this shopping centre go to a different one instead. A libertarian may complain that this is unfair because no matter where they will go they will have to live in a state and therefore be subject to someone’s rules. But if you refuse to go to one shopping centre you still have to go to one somewhere. Likewise if we abolished the state, then no matter where you went you would still be one someone else’s private property and therefore subject to their rules.
It is not theft if you receive something in return. If someone steals my car, that is theft. If I have to sell my car in order to pay my rent, that is not theft. Libertarians sometimes act as though taxes disappear into a black hole and are never seen again. In reality, we receive from the government protection and a commitment to justice. We also receive education, healthcare, transportation, safe food, employment protection and enforcement of contracts. There is also redistribution and welfare in the event of sickness, poverty and old age. So libertarians make the bizarre argument that the government is a thief who gives more than he steals (due to economic inequality most people receive more than they pay in taxes).
Furthermore, what sort of thief lets you decide how your money is spent or how much he takes? If I told a car thief that myself and the neighbours had decided that he shouldn’t take my car, would he listen? Yet the government is subject to the will of the people. We choose whether we want our taxes to be higher or lower when we vote. Based on the failure of libertarians to win elections, most people seem quite content with taxation. There’s nothing stopping a libertarian party from being set up and winning an election. If taxation really was theft, then such a party would easily win a landslide and could promptly end the theft. A key element of the definition of theft is that the victim does not consent to it. But if people do not vote for parties that promise to reduce taxes, but instead for parties that keep taxes at the current level, then must not consider themselves the victims of theft. They must consent to taxes.
But a libertarian would argue that they never agreed to this. Even if they receive more than they pay, they never consented to pay anything. But that is an implicit part of citizenship. Being a citizen comes with rights and responsibilities. You have a right to protection and certain services but also a responsibility to pay for these services. You have a right to vote but a responsibility to accept the result even if your party does not win. Sure I never consented to being a citizen of Ireland, but then again I never consented to capitalism either. I never agreed to live in a society with either democracy or private property. I never agreed to elections being held every five years or the current distribution of property. Do we have to have a social revolution every time someone disagrees with the way things are? The fact is that there are lots of things we never agreed to, but have to live with. We have to live under some sort of political and economic system that will be to some extent arbitrary, but it simply isn’t feasible to have everyone make up their own rules.
The problem with most libertarian arguments is that it assumes we have only rights but no responsibilities. It assumes that we have no duties to the poor, the sick, the elderly or even to children. If a man was starving and a libertarian had two loaves of bread, he wouldn’t share it with the man unless he felt like it. That is not a political ideology but a mental problem called sociopathology. We do have responsibilities to others in society and the government exists to enforce them. Our common humanity unites us and means that the suffering of others is our suffering too. We cannot rest easy if the streets outside our house are full of destitute. A libertarian world would be a cold and empty one, where people sit alone counting their money, blind to poverty, hunger and misery.
Libertarians make the mistake of thinking of people as isolated individuals isolated from the rest of the world. They act as though, I and I alone earned my wage and therefore it belongs to no one else. In reality, we are hugely dependent on others and society. Would we earn anywhere near enough money if we did not have public roads, education, health, energy etc? I did not create everything myself, but instead built on the work of previous generations and worked alongside other members of society. No man is an island and there is no such thing as a self-made person, in reality we are standing on the shoulders of giants. We got to where we are today due to in large parts due to the society we live in, so it is only fair that we pay something to support it. If you don’t believe me, compare your life to what it would be if you lived in a Third World country? Isn’t it worth paying to avoid that?
In reality, libertarians do not truly object to coercion or taxes, they only object to the government doing so. If a private landlord compelled people to live by onerous rules about drugs, guns and religion, libertarians would have no problem. Yet when the government does the same thing, libertarians are up in arms crying oppression. If a starving man agreed to work for half the normal wages because otherwise he would die, a libertarian praises the free market. If a man has to pay half his wages in taxes without which he would die, a libertarian is outraged. Every abuse of government power that libertarians rail against would still occur in a libertarian society, the only difference would be that it would be even worse. If the government was replaced by a private landlord, there would just as much coercion and arbitrary rules, without any of the democratic rights we currently have. The very notion of property is dependent on the state, without which we would be reduced the endless strife and the rule of the strongest. Taxes are a payment to support civilisation and avoid a descent into anarchy.
Theft is the taking of assets of from people without their consent and giving nothing in return. Taxes on the other hand are consented to by citizens (as seen by their continual support for taxation parties and their refusal to vote for libertarian parties or move to tax havens) in exchange for services. Citizens choose the level of these taxes and where they go as well as consenting to abide by majority rule if their preferred option is not selected. Taxes are no more theft than rent is extortion, by living in that location we are agreeing to abide by its rules and pay the charges. If we don’t agree we can either change the rules or move.